A mobile health unit operated by Children's National Medical Center visits neighborhoods in the District and Prince George's County that are not well served by health care providers, enabling poor kids to see the doctor. (Children's National Medical Center)

By John Kelly

When she was a young mother — struggling with her finances, dependent on public assistance — Sheannea Bobbitt used to take her sick children to a free clinic that was two bus rides away from their home in far Southeast D.C. When Sheannea arrived, she couldn’t help but notice how sad and desperate the place was, how surly the employees were and how, in turn, that seemed to make everyone there sad and desperate and surly.

“I hated taking the girls there,” she said.

Sheannea had grown up poor, though she didn’t know it at first.

“You don’t really know that you’re poor until somebody tells you,” she said. “You grow up with family values, good character and integrity, and you don’t realize that money is missing.”

Thanks to her mother, Sheannea had those things. It was just the two of them living together in public housing in a neighborhood that Sheannea says was “infested” with crack. She wanted a path out.

“This is where I am,” she would tell herself. “It’s temporary. It’s not where I’m always going to be.”

But the clinic was a reminder how far she had to go. It was not a nice place. It seemed to reinforce the patients’ poverty. Then Sheannea learned about a mobile health unit that would come to her neighborhood. The unit — basically a fully appointed doctor’s office on a truck — was operated then by Georgetown Hospital. Since 2000, the program has been run by Children’s National Medical Center.

“Historically, transportation and geographical isolation have been barriers to access to primary medical care,” said Rhonique Harris, the medical director of mobile health programs for Children’s. “There are pockets of isolation in neighborhoods where there’s a lot of poverty, a lot of crime. But ultimately the families are just trying to make it. Families like my family, like your family.”

To help them make it, Children’s Hospital operates two medical units in the District and Prince George’s County five days a week along with a three-chair dental unit. Members of the community can also get health care at the Children’s Health Center at THEARC, on Mississippi Avenue SE.

“Our mission is to turn no child away,” Harris said.

For Sheannea, the unit was a window onto a less hard world. There was nothing grudging about the treatment there. Her children have been going to Children’s ever since.

Eventually she was able to get for them and for herself the life she wanted. She graduated from Dunbar and enrolled at UDC. She owns a single-family house in Southeast. For more than 10 years, Sheannea has worked in property management. She’s the manager of an apartment complex in Landover Hills. Her four daughters — who range in age from 12 to 19 — have grown up with their father. The oldest girl, Toria, is studying neuroscience at Mount Holyoke College.

“They’ve never ever been told they can’t,” Sheannea said of her daughters. “As a matter of fact, when someone tells you you can’t, that’s your motivation.”

Southeast is still a part of town that has more than its share of problems.

“A lot of people there are broken,” Sheannea said. “Their soul is just broken like a piece of celery. They don’t think there is any better. They may have tried once or twice in their life. They may have failed and didn’t have the strength to try it again.”

Of course, it was more than the mobile health unit that helped guide Sheannea out of poverty. (It was mainly her own strength of will.) But she marks it as a turning point in her evolution. I was curious what she thinks the psychological effect of continuing to go to the clinic might have been.

Sheannea thought for a moment. “I think I would have been convinced that I was how the people at the clinic treated me, like this is what I deserved,” she said. “I wouldn’t have looked for anything better.”

Helping our children

For many of us — for most of us — our situations are entirely accidents of birth. We were born into wealth or we were born into poverty or we were born somewhere in between. If we’re poor, we can hope that our fellow citizens will help us.

That’s what The Post’s annual campaign for Children’s National Medical Center is all about. As Harris said: “Our whole premise is: A child deserves care, regardless of his insurance status.”

Your tax-deductible donation to Children’s goes to pay the hospital bills of poor boys and girls. This year’s fund drive ends Jan. 4. Our goal is $400,000. Our total so far is $153,870.60. Please help by going to www.childrensnational.org/
or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, MD 21297-1390.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.